For as long as farmers have worked the land, they have taken a role as leaders in protecting and preserving that land, especially caring for soil health. Over millennia, farmers have observed the soil and used innovation and ingenuity to help keep it healthy and productive.
Farmers began tilling the land about 3,000 years ago in Mesopotamia. Tilling softened the soil and changed its physical properties. It gave seeds room to germinate, helped control weeds and produced better yields.1 But tillage also left soil open to erosion. Tilled soil has the potential to lose more of its carbon and nutrients. Over time, it can become unproductive. Around the 1700s, American farmers began to better understand the effects of tillage and make adjustments. They experimented with cover crops (to protect the soil during winter) and crop rotation (planting different crops from season to season). They even began to develop new tillage tools that minimally disturbed the soil.2
With the Dust Bowl of the 1930s in the United States came new awareness about soil conservation. Farmers and the agriculture industry responded with innovations, like seed drills that could plant directly into untilled soil. Farmers began to adopt reduced tillage methods that were not only good for the land, but great for productivity. They realized reduced or no-till systems were less labor-intensive, preserved moisture in the soil and helped the soil hold onto vital nutrients for their crops.2
No-till is just one technique farmers use today to help keep the soil healthy. Cover crops prevent erosion while improving soil nutrients, physical characteristics and beneficial microbes.3 Crop rotation enhances soil nutrient cycling, can help keep pests and diseases at bay and improves soil organic carbon levels.4 Healthier soils can often require fewer inputs, like fertilizers and pesticides. That’s good for the land and for the business of farming. Farmers can also choose from advanced pesticide products that have less impact on soil health. For example, selective pesticides target specific damaging pests while preserving organisms that benefit the soil, like earthworms and beneficial nematodes.
Today, farmers also recognize the importance of soil in helping to address climate change. Since they’re in the business of growing plants, farmers are natural allies in carbon sequestration, helping to capture carbon from the atmosphere and store it in the soil. Techniques farmers have used for centuries because they’re good for the farm—like planting cover crops and reducing tillage—also help capture carbon. Capturing carbon in soil not only helps reduce greenhouse gases, it helps makes soil more fertile and resilient.
Farmers have always recognized the value of the land beneath our feet. With a combination of tried-and-true methods, innovative technologies and adopting new ideas, they continue to protect it.
1 Farooq, Muhammad, and Kadambot H. Siddique. “Conservation Agriculture: Concepts, Brief History, and Impacts on Agricultural Systems.” Conservation Agriculture, 2014, 3–17. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-11620-4_1.
2 Bergtold, Jason, and Marty Sailus, eds. Conservation Tillage Systems in the Southeast Production, Profitability and Stewardship. Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education. Accessed May 25, 2022. https://www.sare.org/resources/conservation-tillage-systems-in-the-southeast/.
3 Duyck, Garrett, and Diane Petit. “Soil Health Practices and No-till Farming Transform Landscapes.” Natural Resources Conservation Council. USDA. Accessed May 25, 2022. https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/detail/national/newsroom/features/?cid=nrcseprd1307111 .
4 Singh, Rinku, and G. S. Singh. “Traditional Agriculture: A Climate-Smart Approach for Sustainable Food Production.” Energy, Ecology and Environment 2, no. 5 (2017): 296–316. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40974-017-0074-7 .